10 Tips On How to Write Conversationally

    write conversationally

     

    “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” – Laurence Sterne

    While I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest writer, one of my strengths as a writer is the ability to write in a fairly conversational style.

    I might not write like everyone talks, but I write like I talk, and I think it creates a more welcoming style of writing.

    Readers are drawn into conversational writing as they are into a good conversation, ideally, and I’ve found this style of writing to be relaxed, fun, and engaging.

    Of course, there are as many styles of conversation as there are people, so what is conversational to me isn’t necessarily so to you. So making your style more conversational doesn’t mean following rigid rules or writing like me (or anyone else). It just means that you write as if you’re talking to the reader, instead of using more formal or academic language.

    It works well for me. If you’re interested in writing conversationally, here are some ideas that might help.

    1. Listen to yourself talk.
      You can’t write like you talk unless you know how that sounds. You have to develop an ear for your speech, which means paying attention to your speech. Listen to yourself as you talk to others (I know, this can be distracting and lead to some bad conversations). How do you open a conversation? How do you structure your sentences? What kind of words do you use often? Do you speak according to proper grammar, or do you break the rules? Do you use slang? Does it change depending on who you’re talking to?
    2. Listen to others talk.
      It’s helpful also to learn the speech patterns of others, not just yourself. And listen to real-life people, not people in movies or television — you want real conversation patterns, not the patterns that screenwriters write. Ideally the two should be the same, but they aren’t always. I like to eavesdrop or people watch to get good samples of real-life conversation.
    3. Read good conversational writing.
      Find good writers who write conversationally, and study their writing patterns and the phrases and words they use. I’m not the only example — many good blogs use this style, as do many good novelists and columnists.
    4. Write as if you’re talking to a close friend.|
      My favorite writing tip comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who advised writers to have a specific reader in mind, and write as if you’re talking to that person. His ideal reader was his sister. Who is yours? If you are talking to the world in general, you’ll probably write more like a speech, rather than like a conversation.
    5. Address the reader directly.
      Instead of writing in third person or to a general audience, you should speak one-on-one with the reader. Note that I said “you should” rather than “a writer should” or “one should”. When you speak to someone, you usually speak to them directly (although third-person sentences can also be used in conversation).
    6. Talk in your head as you write.
      By this I mean say it out loud, to your mind’s ear. You should hear your writing as you’re putting pen to paper or pounding away on the keyboard. You could do this by actually saying the words out loud, with your mouth, but I find that method distracting — it’s much better to have a voice in your head. Good writers often have several voices speaking in their heads. It’s why they’re so crazy.
    7. Eliminate formalities.
      Conversational speech doesn’t follow the rules of formal writing. You can start a sentence with “and” or “but” … you can have run-on sentences from time-to-time, and use ellipses. You can end sentences with prepositions (I do it all the time). I’m not saying you should abandon the rules of grammar altogether, but if faced with a choice between proper grammar and sounding conversational, I will choose conversational. It should be a conscious choice — don’t just ignore the rules, but break them for good reasons.
    8. But don’t be too informal.
      There’s informal and then there’s slang. Uhs and ums aren’t appropriate in writing. Proper punctuation is much easier to read than sentences without punctuation or capitalization.
    9. Read it out loud when you’re done.
      After you’ve written a paragraph, or an entire piece (a post, a chapter, a story), read it aloud. Hear how it sounds when spoken, not just by your mind’s voice, but by your mouth’s voice.
    10. If it sounds stilted, change it.
      When you read it aloud (or in your head as you’re writing), and you hear something that sounds stilted, go back and change it. Make it flow better, make it sound more casual, make it more like speech.

    “Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.” – William Shakespeare

    You can use conversational writing in fiction as well as in non-fiction. It is one of the most imporant tools in our writer’s toolbox!

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com and for her cutting-edge book, Youthful Aging Secrets. In her “spare” time, Mary is also the brains behind GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • jay says:

      #10 This was an excelent instriction for people who don’t know what they r saying so c ya

    • aimomo says:

      normally*

    • aimomo says:

      Very nice, but I’d like to add that “uh” and “um” have their place too: Though you may not put them everywhere you would normal say them, they could be added for humour.

    • ajala abiodun says:

      pls i ned u to update me on writing …

    • Cheri says:

      Nice post. I was hoping you might reference particular authors whose conversational style has inspired you/that you’d recommend reading, though.

    • Boris h says:

      I wanted to say this kind of articles ARE just for inspiration…this comments really lack EDIT option ;))

    • Boris h says:

      This is a good article but I still don’t think this kind of articles are just for inspiration because no one can “show” you how to write. I have my own style that I’m developing for years now. Of course it changed over the years as I was influenced with other writers, books and other stuff I liked or disliked but that only helped me shape my own writing and not mimic others…
      Thanks for the article though

    • emm says:

      um whatever doesn’t help!

    • Martin says:

      Being able to put a concept down in writing and making that easy to understand is one of the reasons I try to keep a blog going.

      One of the best ways to get feedback on my writing was to add my own blog to my RSS reader and reading my posts intermixed with those by “true” professionals.

      There is room for improvement… so much that it is nearly outer space actually.

    • Leo says:

      @Corey: Actually, I do talk in bullet-point list style. 🙂 I often explain things by ticking off points on my fingers, or saying, “First, blah blah blah; second, blah blah; and third, blah blech.”

      It’s weird, but it’s just how I think. 🙂

    • Very good advice. Sometimes the hardest part of writing is breaking out of the style that’s been drilled into you since high school and learning how to write in an engaging, conversational style. The thing that helps me most when I write is saying the words aloud in my head as I’m writing. That way, if something sound stilted or too formal, it pops out immediately. #9 is also a great tip– reading things aloud after the fact really does help in catching over-formal writing.

    • Tim says:

      Re: 6. Talk in your head as you write – it never occurred to me that people don’t do this! Perhaps helps explain some of my students’ writing. 🙂

      I find it (conversational style) works even in academic writing.In reading your post I thought about the different conversations we have – and I though a formal article (journal piece, research report, academic paper) is like a formal conversation, a presentation. And, just a like a formal presentation, you always give that *to* someone. So I always write my papers as if I was reading them, and I always read as if I am speaking.

      Thanks. 🙂

    • Mary B. says:

      And read Elmore Leonard. . . Lots and lots of Elmore Leonard.

    • As I read this post, I noticed the frequency of paragraph breaks.
      I’m a big fan of that. (I’m a fan of parenthetical comments, too!)

      So a possible addition? Leave the reader room to respond – whitespace is your conversational friend. Longer paragraphs create a lecture/monologue tone; shorter paragraphs give the feeling that there is room for the reader to add their own thoughts. If I’d take a breath when speaking, or pause to gage a listener’s response, I break the text.

      As for audience, I write with myself in mind. I try to be sure that I could follow the thoughts even on my worst, most scattered days.

    • I think a conversational tone works really well for blogs and other types or writing.

      I think voice is the key to a good writer, and it is not exactly the same thing as tone. Good writing has a strong voice, where you can hear the writer, as if they were talking to you. David Sedaris is a good example, if you ever hear him talk, and read his writing…they have the same voice. Even if you don’t like him, it is hard to deny the voice that comes through in his writing.

      One of my favourite excerpts from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is “Good writers are always visible just behind their words”. I think your writing is like that. You are very present in your writing, which makes it so enjoyable to read. I also really enjoy your choice of quotations..they are often quite fitting!

    • I think that conversational writing is really important in blogging. Whatever your topic, there are so many others out there writing about the same thing. To carve your own unique place in the landscape of your niche, you need to pour yourself into your writing. The more you sound like a real person with all their quirks, the more memorable your writign will be.

      The best way I find to nurture your unique writing voice is to really relax before you write your first draft, then just spew out the words with no thought whatsoever. Write until you feel the words flowing out of your fingers. Be as free as possible. Then leave the work, and come back later to craft it.

      Good topic for a post, Leo.

      🙂 Kelly

    • Leo-

      I must give you a bit of a hard time based on your statement: “I might not write like everyone talks, but I write like I talk, and I think it creates a more welcoming style of writing.” While I love your writing, it must be very interesting to hear a person talk in bullet point list style. 🙂

    • Jacqueline says:

      What a great post.

      Like others who have commented, I always have a specific person to whom I’m writing. He is my ideal reader, the person I’d have coffee with and just chat. That is to whom I write.

    • Matthew says:

      Thanks for the great post.

      Number seven, on formalities, caught my interest. Some of the rules you mentioned (like starting with a conjunction or ending with a preposition) are syntactical and were imposed by grammarians who didn’t understand how the language actually works. Those are good rules to ignore even in formal writing.

      But other rules you mentioned (like using run-ons) are orthographic and should not be broken, as you said, without good reasons.

    • Matt says:

      I always reread anything important back to myself out loud. I find that actually hearing the words that I’m reading makes more of a difference than if I’m just trying to read the text back in my head.

    • --Deb says:

      This explains why I like parenthetical comments so much. And I’m just counting myself lucky that there’s no way to put in hand gestures into my writing, because sometimes I’d swear that I simply cannot explain things without using my hands!

    • Marce says:

      Great tips! I think it’s important that writers understand the importance of writing conversationally because that is what grasps readers and keeps them reading.

    • @J.D. – I really like the idea of writing an article in an email. Nothing brings out a conversational tone better than an email. Thanks.

    • J.D. says:

      For me, I’m with Kurt — I write for my sister (unless it’s my tech books.)

      For my team, I tell them to write it in email first — it brings out the conversation in them.

      I think the single best way to *not* write conversationally, is to write without someone specific in mind. When a teammate writes something I think is too far out, I simply ask them, how would you say it to me?

    • What’s helped me develop a conversational style is writing in my journal pretty much everyday for eight years. I always write for someone who might one day actually read it (usually, it’s just me a few years later). It really gives the material a more human feel.

    • #10 and then that last quotation say a lot. It takes some real effort to sound conversational (at least for me). It’s so easy to hide behind formalities and often when we strip ourselves of them there’s nothing to protect our prose from substancelessness.

      –Clay


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